Oct 14, 2011

In romance, how real is too real?

by Robyn Grady

One of the reasons I love romance fiction is the fact that there seems to be a story for everyone! Harlequin offers a wide range of tones, with various levels of sensuality (from sweet to scorching!) as well as lines that provide pure fantasy to real life grit and anywhere in between.

I love fantasy. There seems to be endless variations on the Cinderella theme. The movie Enchanted literally takes the fairytale and drops it dead centre of the realities of New York. An old hobo steals the princess’s tiara. A divorcing couple get nasty at the lawyer’s office. But the flavour is still deliciously light.

Then there’s Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook (yes, I know he writes ‘love stories’ but the romance in this tale is monumental.) While there are lighter moments, the deeper subject matter propelling this story is dark: unfaithfulness, debilitating illness, treachery on a level that turns your stomach even while you sympathise with the reasoning. The close of the book is poignant – we feel hope and gut-wrenching sadness as well as a frightening sense of: ‘This could happen to anyone. This could happen to me’.

I like light. I love the escape! But I think I like heavy more. Not ‘hand to the brow’ over-the-top drama but fiction reflecting real life issues, particularly in romance where a happy ending is guaranteed no matter how tough the battle to get there.

My latest Presents - Fearless Maverick - is part of an editorial-driven continuity (that is the editors create the characters and general story arcs). Early in the story we discover that the heroine was in an accident and wears a lower-leg prosthesis. Some readers/reviewers loved the story! Romantic Times awarded it four and a half stars and said,
This fast-paced romance will grab readers from the start and not let go, with unforgettable characters, excellent witty and descriptive dialogue and a plot that gives us incredible in-depth detail -- it reads like a much longer novel.'

But other readers felt – well, the term I’d use is betrayed. They weren’t happy that a story, which is meant to be filled with high-stakes, should get this close to reality.

I puzzled over the responses to this book being so polarised. They loved it or, well, they didn't. Which leaves me with an interesting question about how to approach future works. But I have to say that I’d much rather have a strong response to my characters and their stories than mediocre ones.

Do you have any examples of what’s too far in romance for your tastes? Or what’s just right!


  1. Interesting set of responses, particularly the not so favorable ones, Robyn.

    Personally, I love the grit of realism and take it in my stride as a reader. Your inclusion of a heroine with a prosthesis is something that would make me pick up the book - it's different to the "run of the mill" stories.

    As a writer I like to include aspects that make the book/characters more life like. Empathising or sympathising with such characters adds a deeper layer to the experience. I've written a heroine who is blind, a young child who's mute, a heroine who's suffered physical/mental abuse - all aspects of people I've met in real life.

    As you've mentioned, I'd like to see readers react to what I've written rather than read my book and put it aside with "hmm, OK" reaction. So go the polarised views!!!

    As for something in romance that's too real, I guess it depends on reader expectations of a particular book or line (ie.category romance).The blurb should reflect or mention content appropriately and the reader goes in with eyes wide open.

    As I said before, the type of realism you have in your book, BAD BLOOD, would make me pick it up and want to read it.

  2. Robyn, I like some real world grit mixed in with the romance but I also like the guaranteed Happy Ending as long as its played out authentically to the grit.

  3. I love the light. It's no secret that I'm a complete scaredy cat about suspense or thriller elements, but I also love some real life elements that add depth and texture.

    And I also like variety. Perhaps it's because I read so much category romance, if I come across a book with something a bit different, like your heroine's leg injury, I love it.

    Btw, I loved the hero and heroine in Fearless Maverick!

  4. Kylie, sounds like your tastes and mine are v similar. It really is about reader expectation, as you say, and the more an author writes, the more her voice will shine and her true 'market' will develop and grow.
    Love your blogsite btw. Lots of great guests, giveaways and info!

  5. Hi Fiona! Yes, authenticity is key! Believability rather than drama-for-drama's sake will hold my interest till that much anticipated happily ever after. =)

  6. Rachel, you and I are so similar - and so different! lol You'd reach for anything Jennifer Cruiser where I might grab the Patricia Cornwell. Then, of course, there's stuff like Buffy... =))

  7. I don't have any specific examples. I tend to like my romances more 'fairytale' or light than real. That's why I read them. For drama or heavy I look elsewhere - other genres.

  8. Marybelle, thank you so much for your post! So you prefer the Sweet/Cherish lines? We have some brilliant 'sweet' authors here. For drama (heavy) do you have a fave author or genre? (or recommendations!)

  9. Many thanks for the compliments on my blog - I enjoy interviewing the authors and creating the posts! Lots of fun!

    Just curious - you've only talked about BAD BLOOD as far as realism in romance goes. Have you written other stories with similar issues or is this your first? I think as writers we like to gravitate to certain themes or highlight certain types of characters. Have you had polarised responses to other pieces of work?

  10. You're welcome, Kylie! I'm a fan =)

    That's a very interesting question. The closest I've come to this book was a Desire, "Bargaining for Baby". It tackles feelings of betrayal and isolation and I was stoked to receive a private email from NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery saying how very much she enjoyed it. That was *huge* for me, and a sign that I was going in the right direction as far as my writing was concerned. I was reaching my audience!

  11. Great blog, Robyn, and a thought-provoking question. I like light reads and heavy ones and gritty realism and pure escapism. It all depends on the mood I'm in. So I like Kylie's suggestion that the backcover blurb needs to reflect what is in the book so that the reader has realistic expectations.

  12. Robyn, I think I'll put my hand up for fantasy and fairy tale end of the spectrum in a romance. I just love being swept away (and swept off my feet) by romances.

    Love the gritty stuff too...but I go elsewhere for that. :-)

    And I so agree with Kylie and Sharon -- the backcover blurb better deliver on its promise or I'll be seriously disappointed.

  13. Robyn, WOW on that private email - what a thrill to get that sort of message!

    For category do you have a cover copy team who write the back cover blurbs? Do you ladies get much of a say in them? Or get to tweak them to deliver on the promises made for the story within?

  14. Robbie I've loved all the books of yours I've read so far, and I have a feeling this one could become one of my favs. I totally adore anything/anyone a little bit different in my stories, makes for a far more interesting read.

  15. Sharon, that's a lot of it. Mood. Sometimes I'd kill for a good romantic comedy, at others I crave something dark. I started reading Shutter Island again today. So real...and yet not =)

  16. Just read the back blurb again. It speaks in general terms about her life's challenges, but the series was widely promoed and hinges on eight siblings moving past their abusive pasts. I think in this case it was more about some readers wanting what they term as a perfect woman for the perfect hero.

  17. Kylie, not sure about cover copy "team". I think it's usually your editor. I'll have to ask now =) I've never had a problem with any of my blurbs. (I'm blessed with wonderful editors in both London and New York.)

  18. Bless you, Mel! When we finally get together for another lunch, I'll give you a copy =*)